Centralizing the Griot in Space and Time: The Practice of Spatial Literacy

Tanya Shields, our featured IAAR blogger, is an assistant professor in UNC’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.  Dr. Shields’s first book, Bodies and Bones: Feminist Rehearsal and Imagining Caribbean Belonging, is forthcoming with the University of Virginia Press and examines the ways in which rehearsing historical events and archetypal characters shapes belonging to the Caribbean region.  Dr. Shields has been working with several Caribbean artists in an effort to engage in “real time” conversations on change and rehearsal. She teaches classes on Caribbean women, the arts of activism, growing up as a girl globally, and the continuing influence of plantation economics and politics. 

Folashade Alao’s recent IAAR talk, “‘I Remember, I Believe:’ Griots, Migrants, and the Textures of Southern Space,” uses Lizz Wright’s version of Sweet Honey’s “I Remember, I Believe” as a structuring device to illuminate not only the griot tradition, but also the import of space in helping us “read a black diasporic past that we cannot see.”

Alao characterizes the griot as not only a storyteller, but more importantly as a guide who “radically and fundamentally transform[s] the very ways in which…readers [and] viewers interact with physical and natural spaces.” Artists serve as griot guides who show the reader and/or viewer the significance of space on our consciousness. Using the concept of spatial literacy, which she defines as “the ability to read physical geography as a critical text that is constructed and shaped through social processes, events, and individuals at different moments across time,” Aloa allows us to see the past as dynamic. To demonstrate the doing of spatial literacy Alao applies it to three texts: “1960 Who: Atlanta Student Movement and Freedom Riders,” Sheila Pree Bright’s interactive photo installation; the collective family memoir, Lemon Swamp, by Mamie Garvin Fields and Karen Fields; and Triangular Road, Paule Marshall’s spatially-inflected memoir.

This talk and Alao’s book manuscript, “I Hear Echoes Still” is attentive to the various registers of southern space and the construction of the south as a place.  Her work begs the question: what is the south? Our collective imagination is replete with Southern imaginaries that have been shaped by history and culture: big oaks (gallant trees), magnolia, slavery, Jim Crow segregation, violence, horror, victimization, family, fried chicken, and sweet potato, etc. Or if we expand our definition to include the global South: it could include palm trees, sapodilla, hibiscus, slavery, colonialism, family, the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, Santeria, rum, plantains, yams, pan music, rumba, and reggae. But in this globalized world, what makes the South different from other spaces? A more rigorous definition of what encompasses the region would be instructive in illuminating Alao’s point that the south is not static, but a site that is shifting and reconstituting itself like every other place. Indeed, the U.S. South today has significant Latina/o and Asian populations in addition to its historical black and white ones. And as the cotton fields to skyscrapers exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South indicates, southern landscapes have evolved. Alao points to a nuanced engagement with cultural geography that allows us to experience the history hidden in the overgrowth of a reclaiming nature or demolished by a gentrification (see the film, My Brooklyn), all of which challenge our notions of the south.  Additionally, as with Marshall’s memoir, Alao has the opportunity to investigate a global south.  While this may be beyond the purview of her project, I am struck by the way the griot guides resonate, mimic, and flow into each other. For instance, here are two examples: Jabulile, a Gullah storyteller/guide and Miss Lou, the famed Jamaican poet and cultural keeper.

Dr. Folashadé Alao in her lecture "I Remember, I believe."

Dr. Folashadé Alao in her lecture “I Remember, I believe.”

Alao’s presentation is particularly compelling when she reminds us of the tensions between memory and forgetting. To do this, she invokes Toni Morrison’s 1989 acceptance speech for the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award. In this piece, Morrison decries the lack of “suitable memorials” for slaves and “the ones who made the journey and of those who did make it.” And because these memorials do not exist, “the book [Beloved] had to” and thus, Alao’s interweaves visual texts and memoirs to show how space evolves based on the confluence of history, culture and environment. The interaction of these texts indicate the bodily and sensory potential of spatial literacy (While Lizz Wright framed the talk, Alao used Gregory Porter’s “1960 What?” to frame Bright’s exhibition, “1960 Who?”) and complements the analysis in the talk. Her critical work reminds me of two novels, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day and Merle Collins’s The Colour of Forgetting. In these novels, characters “assemble different aspects of space” to bring various fragments of themselves into some semblance of a whole. The process of developing a holistic subjectivity or a less fragmented one means coming to terms with the past. “I Remember, I Believe” maps the ways in which layers of space, self, and community are made visible. The bleeding through of story from one generation to the next is at the very heart of spatial literacy as a practice of re-writing that centers the griot as a guide.